Pump Boys and Dinettes, Book, Music and Lyrics by John Foley, Mark Hardwick, Debra Monk, Cass Morgan, John Schimmel, and Jim Wann. Directed by Tim Fort. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
"Work won't kill you, but worry will."
"They're the Pump Boys. . .and The Dinettes; photoL Hubert Schriebl
I remember a time when fun was what you got at a musical. I remember 1982. It was a good year for fun on the musical stage: "Do Patent Leather Shoes Really Reflect Up?" and "Little Shop of Horrors" and "Nine" and those 1981 holdovers "Dreamgirls," "Sophisticated Ladies" and "Woman of the Year." You could sing their songs as you left the theater; you could feel your feet dancing under the seat in front of you. One show from 1981 that moved to a Broadway setting from Off-Broadway in 1982 was "Pump Boys and Dinettes," a small, quirky, idiotic idea of a show that left you feeling little else but joy. Unlike some of the others mentioned here, "Pump Boys" disappeared after its initial run, but it is back and revving its gentle engines in Weston, Vermont where you need to go to see it and experience the simple pleasures of six talented people making music and having fun.
It's sort of a review. It has a plot though, but you have to watch for it. The guys at the filling station and the girls from the diner need a vacation. They dream of fishing, of drinking beer and sitting on a Florida Keys beach. They take a vacation and come back to work and they haven't really changed, but they've sure had some fun in a borrowed Winnebago that needs repairing. End of story. It's the nearly two hours of delicious country-inflected songs that carry you along and make this so worthwhile. Even more its the extreme talents of the players that makes it a show that you need, I mean NEED, to see.
The Dinettes are the Cupp sisters, Rhetta, played by Molly Hager, and Prudie, played by Grace McLean. They grew up knowing each other but never really knowing one another and now they are almost inseparable. One has kids and aspirations; one has dreams of perfection. Prudie sings the blues (The Best Man); Rhetta sings a warning (Be Good or Be Gone) and both expose their belief that men are both fickle and untrustworthy (Tips). One likes Jim and one likes L.M., the two men who run the neighboring station. They both love the odds - it's two men to one woman in their small town in the Carolinas.
Completely different in appearance and style, Hager and McClean could easily pass for sisters. There is a symbiosis here that is wonderful to watch and hear. Their voices blend splendidly and they both have excellent acting chops. Dressed in what appear to be cast-off uniforms from the sitcom "Two Broke Girls" they play tambourine, wooden spoons, cooking implements and even musical instruments as they combine forces with their male neighbors to tell their stories in song. I do believe that their ease with one another forms the glue that holds this production together. They want you to "come on in, set down and get comfortable" and they do their best to make that happen.
Molly Hager and Grace McLean; photo: Hubert Schriebl
Joe Iconis, Jason SweetTooth Williams, Seth Eliser, Lorenzo Wolff; photo: Hubert Shriebl
L.M., the man at the piano, percussion, accordion and more, is played in this production by Joe Iconis. With hair the color of motor oil he sings of his one romance, a country-music fantasy come true, and his belief in letting the customer be right only if that customer is willing to do his own work. He is crafty in his disregard for the women and this, of course, incites their continued interest. Iconis is wonderful in this role, playing it for all the nuance he can find in it. His partner, Jim, is played by Jason SweetTooth Williams, who narrates, chats up the audience, leads sing-alongs, plays more instruments than I could count and reveals secrets of his childhood in a plaintive song (Mamaw) that truly touches the heart. Williams has an instant rapport with his audience and his welcoming ways make the audience as much a part of the show as are the people on stage.
Jackson, their employee, played by Seth Eliser, is a younger version of Jim, a more romantic visionary perhaps with a yearning for a cashier (Mona) which gives him the only true rock song in the show. He performs it brilliantly and Iconis gets to ressurect Jerry Lee Lewis for a few minutes during this number. Lorenzo Wolff plays Eddie, a non-speaking workman who handles the acoustic and electric bass instruments and the banjo. When he smiles the world lights up and so do the Cupp Sisters.
While we are in the world of the 1980s we are really in a psychological era called timeless in this show. With all of the confusion about the Confederate flag these days and the use of outdated expletives and demeaning attitudes the folks in this show are just plain nice and ordinary and acceptable on every level. Tim Fort, the director, has given these characters the forthright opportunity to just be themselves and be likeable. The set is both the garage and the diner. They have similar views of Highway 57 through their closed windows and doors. As designed by Russell Parkman the places have a magical conjoining which lends to the show an almost ethereal beauty and an elusive sense of reality. Ilona Somogyi's simple costumes are perfect and Stuart Duke's lighting is probably the finest musical theater lighting I have seen in a long time. Sound Designer Ed Chapman has defined clarity and we never miss a word, never miss a note. Terrie M. Robinson has provided some remarkable choreography for non-dancers and, like Fort's stage direction, it works like a charm.
Road trip, everyone! Hike your own Winnebago off its supports and get on up to Weston for this experience. "Highway 57" may not be your road when you set out but it will be your favorite choice as you drive on home afterward.
Pump Boys and Dinettes plays through July 11 at the Weston Playhouse, on the town green in Weston, Vermont. For tickets and information call the box office at 802-824-5288 or go on line at westonplayhouse.org.